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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Of pyramids, eggs, durians and depicting power in Malaysia

Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 2, 2020 – March 08, 2020.

Power structures are often perceived in the form of a pyramid. Where the number of inhabitants at each level is concerned, then yes, a hierarchy is clearly and understandably modelled as a pyramid, presented as a structure with a huge and stable base and with a pinnacle at the top from which to oversee the domain. The added advantage of this depiction — if not the underlying reason for it — is that it projects a sense of stability. The bigger the base, the lower the centre of gravity, and the more impossible it appears to be to topple.

But if we were to quantify power, and then draw a diagram to represent how power is distributed, power structures would look more like an upside-down pyramid than anything else. The same goes for wealth distribution. If we just consider the number of persons involved, then we have the 1% sitting on top of an iceberg and the big sagging base of poor people anchoring the structure, like a sloppy pyramid. But if we are to depict the amount of wealth and money accruing to each level, again, we will have an upside-down pyramid as the right picture.

Power and wealth distribution structures therefore tend to have a centre of gravity that sits unnervingly high up. They are basically unstable and this is often known to those at the top.

To keep such a structure from tipping over, a power-holder has to manage popular narratives in such a way that the public adopts a depiction that things are right side up and that keeping the status quo is the only rational thing to do. For someone trying to topple a power structure, the notion to sell is that of the upside-down pyramid, to give collective hope of a better future.

So much noise, so few signals

Whatever the case, for any system to function, messaging is vital. A simple way to think about power and messaging is that messages, like water flowing upwards in a bottle, very quickly hits, well, a bottleneck. At the same time, messages flowing downhill quickly becomes a cascade. They get megaphoned and may, for that very reason, be more noise than signal.

In modern times, the job of megaphoning messages upwards axiomatically belongs to the Fourth Estate — the mass media. These days, social media does that better but with distortions so huge that we lose faith in the information being blasted into our eyes and ears. Be that as it may, managing public responses thus becomes a skill acutely needed by any incumbent or anyone seeking to come to power.

Donald Trump managed to beat the powerful electoral structure of the Democrats in 2015 through a constant blemishing of their candidate, Hillary Clinton. It is strongly suspected that other forces — domestic and external — skilled in internet propaganda were instrumentally helpful in his campaign. And since then, he has governed — skilfully in the eyes of some, embarrassingly thoughtlessly according to others — through daily tweets.

And so, in the US, we have a strange situation where a party of millionaires, led by a silver-spooned billionaire, professes to champion poor segments of the population, and does it through the generating of collective fear against foreigners, immigrants and refugees but accompanied by the collective utopian wish to “make America great again”.

The Covid-19 epidemic that hit Wuhan from the end of last year put on display the greatest weaknesses and the greatest strengths of the authoritarian system run by the Communist Party of China. Messages (orders) sent down from above tend to disseminate very well and even get exaggerated, while messaging from below tends to hit barriers a lot of the time.

While early warnings about the virus were brushed aside by lower officials, the system could lock down a whole province and build a skyscraper hospital within two weeks and livestream it on the internet.

Rounding the pyramid

Democracy, most of us do think, is a model that lowers the centre of gravity and that is why we long for it. It promises political stability, accountability and freedom. The graphic depiction of power, whether by virtue of population or quantified power, would therefore be like that of an egg lying on its side, somewhat like an American football. Information flows would be maximised as well.

The problem here, though, seems to be that the information flows can bring divisiveness, chaos and confusion while the endless electoral politics democracy brings endless policy changes, and even confrontations for their own sake.

Malaysia is a case in point. The country has not only always been governed by coalitions; independence was in fact granted thanks to the existence of a viable coalition. There are good reasons why that was so, and why all governments since then have been coalitions.

If we are to consider the concept of “estates” with the body politic as evidenced in the French Revolution, there were the clergy denoted as the first estate, the nobility classed as the second estate, with commoners making up the third estate. The honour of being the fourth estate was given to the emerging mass media (though in reference to England’s House of Commons) by virtue of its potential to hold the first and the second accountable.

Here we have the beginning of the left-right divide at a time when the first was losing its grip on society — and in a largely homogenous society. The fourth estate was potentially objective because it could include members from all the other estates, plus the burgeoning educated class.

Placing this nomenclature onto the Malaysian example, we see, first of all, that the left-right divide contested with, and was often overshadowed by, other crisscrossing divides, mainly:

1. The religiosity of the Malay population, which meant that the first estate, though decentralised in the 1950s, has since the 1970s captured an increasingly important position in the power equation of the country, aided by central paragraphs in the constitution which define the Malay community and compromise the otherwise secular document;

2. The divide between nobility and commoners — the second and third estates — was bridged by the rise of the race-championing nobility-run Umno in 1946 and relatively neutralised by the inter-ethnic divide that in the early days saw the Malay community holding only a slight and precarious demographic majority:

3. A fourth estate that never came of age and, which, when it found a voice in the age of the Internet, was given to soundbite reporting and blog journalism and never really enjoyed proper support from a shackled academe;

4. The ethnic divides that gave rise to race-based parties, to the racial riots of 1969, to the long-term comprehensive affirmative action for the majority group, to the adoption of the bumiputera paradigm, and which became ever more confusing and befuddling when one includes in the equation the ethnic diversity of the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and;

5. A historical, cultural and experiential diversity among the constituent states that made it necessary for Malaysia to be created as a federation and not a monolithic state.

The last two points do not appear in the French Model that gave rise to the nomenclature of four estates. All the above points — among other lesser though still significant divides — make any attempt at graphically depicting correctly the nature of political power in Malaysia a rather vain undertaking. It is not a simple pyramid — right-side up or upside-down, and it is not a simple neat egg either because there are obviously many protruding pinnacles in the system.

Perhaps it is best to depict it as a durian: round but with spikes in all directions. Such an object can only be managed politically by one or another coalition. That is the exquisiteness and the cursed state of this wonderful and unique country. The durian excites your tongue and challenges your nostrils. But it is a hard fruit to crack.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His latest book is The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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